To Whom It May Concern,
My name is Derek Riggs and I’ve been a Science teacher at Multioak High School for 12 years. I’m writing on behalf of a student named Zachary Kingler. Zachary Kingler wants you to award him the Edna S. Maxie Memorial Scholarship. Apparently you require all applicants to submit a letter of recommendation from a teacher or administrator at their high school. For Zachary, this is that letter of recommendation and I am that teacher.
I sense that this is off to a clumsy start, but I don’t know how else to do it. I’ve never written a letter of recommendation before.
Two weeks ago, Zachary pulled me aside in the hallway between classes to ask if I would write this letter and I was too surprised to refuse. After we spoke and I returned to my classroom, the surprise turned to confusion and I began to feel shaken. The truth is that I don’t know why Zachary Kingler asked me to write this letter. I don’t know why Zachary Kingler, a student I’ve never thought much about, would voluntarily place his future in my hands. I can’t help but feel as if I’m missing something, as if there’s a subtext to Zachary’s request that only I am incapable of seeing. I fear that if I were to tell any of the other teachers or administrators or even students that Zachary Kingler asked me to write this letter, that they would nod and say “of course” or laugh behind their hands or shake their heads ruefully and say “Well, we all saw it coming.” Perhaps, sitting there in your office in the light of day and reading through a pile of scholarship applications, you think I sound irrational or paranoid. That’s fine. But why did Zachary Kingler ask me to write this letter?
Let me explain something: I’m not the kind of teacher students ask to write letters of recommendation for them. They usually ask Mr. Vickrah, the irreverent Art teacher who commiserates with them about the unfairness of the dress code, or Ms. Hillmet, the grandmotherly English teacher who thinks everyone can succeed if given dozens of chances, or they ask any of the other teachers who involve themselves in extracurricular activities and know how to pronounce the names of rappers and litter their desks with pictures of their dogs looking sheepish in the midst of baths. I don’t do any of those things.
I’m the kind of teacher who students can’t envision wearing shorts. I’m the kind of teacher who students believe to be 45-years-old even though I’m only 33. I’m the kind of teacher who’s rumored to be gay because none of the students have seen my wife, I never mention her, and the students are not creative enough to come up with a more intriguing rumor. I’m the kind of teacher who feels obliged to say disparaging things about the preeminence of athletics in our schools and the brain-withering effects of video games even though I myself enjoy video games, a taste which I have, of course, concealed from the students because I do not want them to hang around after class with the intention of discussing video games with me. I’m the kind of teacher whose classroom looks as if I decorated it with a knife held to my throat. My point is that it seems unlikely that Zachary Kingler asked me to write this letter because he likes me.
Nor do I think that Zachary Kingler respects or admires me. There are teachers in this school who are stern, who are gruff and businesslike, who are strict disciplinarians and unfailing advocates of Learning with a capital “L.” While these teachers are not loved by most of the student body, it is not uncommon for them to form bonds with a certain kind of serious-minded student who recognizes and responds to their sincere desire to better the lives of America’s youth. Mr. Gilmine is one of these teachers. He screams because he cares. Mrs. Adonway is one of these teachers too. Parents send her emails complaining about the difficulty of her tests and she prints the emails off, instructs the students to correct their own parents’ grammatical errors with pink pens, and makes the students take the corrected emails home for their parents to sign as proof that they saw them.
I am not one of these teachers. My lesson plans haven’t changed in over a decade. I still turn off the lights in my classroom and use a gently-humming overhead projector to demonstrate how to balance chemical equations while my students nod off. Then I dock their class participation grades for nodding off. When students ask me when they’re ever going to use Chemistry in their real lives, I tell them that they won’t because they’ll be ringing up lottery tickets at gas stations or getting delivery trucks stuck under overpasses with clearly posted low clearance signs. When students cry in my classroom, I sigh and wave a box of rough, generic tissues at them, refusing to look them in their weepy eyes. I make no effort to present Science as interesting because I don’t think it is interesting. I can’t imagine that I’ve inspired anyone, and that includes Zachary Kingler. So again, why did he ask me to write this letter?
Bear with me as I explore a third possibility. The Health teacher at Multioak High School is named Marty Irthing and no matter what he says or does, a certain portion of the student body invariably finds it ridiculous. One merely needs to invoke his name – Mr. Irthing – to reduce some of the dumber students to paroxysms of laughter. Last year, a senior named Drew Ousterfin named his intramural basketball team “Mr. Irthing’s Bad Boys” and was widely hailed as a comic genius. Although he has his share of idiosyncrasies, I believe that Mr. Irthing has now become a sort of institution for mockery, a man mocked out of ritual obligation. That is, when a student laughs at the mention of Mr. Irthing, he isn’t laughing at Mr. Irthing the person. He’s laughing at the idea of Mr. Irthing: an idea that was established years ago and has been passed along to each incoming class of freshmen ever since. There are several teachers and administrators who fit into this category, authority figures who have become unwitting, daily sources of comic relief for the students.
So I have to ask myself: have I become one of those teachers? Has my reserved, closed-off, aloof bearing been recast as amusing in some way? Did Zachary Kingler ask me to write this letter of recommendation because his classmates would find news of such a request uproarious? I don’t think so.
For one thing, my physique is not funny. Neither my nose nor my ears are overlarge. My haircut is unremarkable. I wear contact lenses. My wardrobe consists of khaki pants, dress shirts, and ties that do not draw attention to themselves. My clothes fit just fine, thank you.
I do have a reputation for being dull, but not comically so like Mr. Berweg, whose mopey facial expressions and aimless run-on sentences are prime material for impressions by the usual crop of class clowns. I have to believe that if irony was Zachary’s aim, he would have chosen someone funnier than myself: the aforementioned Mr. Irthing or Mr. Berweg, or Mrs. Lamke, who’s grossly fat and wears only three unflattering outfits on a rigid rotation, or Mr. Fry, who plays the drum kit in a band called Making the Grade and becomes red-faced and tongue-tied when students mock his baldness, or Mr. Stonebutt for obvious reasons, and so on.
I never hear students snickering as I pass by in the hall. I never see their eyes light up as they attempt to stifle their mirth at something I’ve said in class. All I see are slack jaws, blank eyes, and inattentive, distracted faces. I am not one of the amusing characters in this school. Why did Zachary Kingler ask me to write this letter?
Zachary Kingler was a sophomore in my Chemistry I class two years ago. He earned a B+. He never disrupted the class or had conflicts with his classmates. When I called on him to answer questions, he sometimes knew what he was talking about. He seemed like a normal young man who would probably do fine in a college setting.
If he had not asked me to write this letter of recommendation, I would have had no objection to him receiving the Edna. S. Maxie Memorial Scholaship. But he did ask me, and that does not make sense. Up until two weeks ago, I would have said I knew who Zachary Kingler was, more or less. Now I realize that I have no idea who he is and perhaps never did. And if I don’t understand him, then he has become unpredictable. And if he’s unpredictable, he’s dangerous. How can I recommend a student who behaves illogically? Who acts without rhyme or reason? How can I recommend a student so out of touch that he goes out of his way to ask me to recommend him? I cannot. Give the Edna S. Maxie Memorial Scholarship to someone other than Zachary Kingler.